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Franz Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets, Op. 50, “Prussian” (performed from the Artaria Edition, Vienna, 1787)
The London Haydn Quartet (Catherine Manson, Michael Gurevich, violins; James Boyd, viola; Jonathan Manson, cello)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, October 24-26, 2014
HYPERION CDA68122 [75:35 + 73:16]

The London String Quartet’s Haydn series has been critically acclaimed. On the strength of this issue, that acclaim comes with good reason. Use of gut strings and minimal vibrato take this into the historically informed territory, while the use of the 1787 Vienna edition of the scores adds a distinct tinge of musicological respectability. Although promised to Artaria (and dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia), the quartets were also published by William Forster in London. The actual manuscripts of Op. 50 were assumed lost until Nos. 3-6 appeared in Melbourne in 1982.

The London Haydn Quartet’s previous Hyperion Haydn releases include Op. 9 (CDA67611), Op. 17 (CDA67722), Op. 20 (CDA67877) and Op. 33 (CDA67955).

The first quartet of Op. 50, in B flat, has a first movement constructed with massive economy. Exposition repeat is observed. The Adagio is a theme and variations in E flat, the theme’s shaping as impeccable as it is beautiful. There is some simply stunning cello playing by Jonathan Manson later in the movement. There is subtlety, too, to the Menuetto, while the finale careers on with irrepressible energy. Over on Naxos, the Kodály Quartet, on modern instruments and caught in decidedly less good sound, seem pedestrian in the first movement. The Kodály Quartet’s Theme for the second movement is certainly stately, perhaps overly so, and while it is tenderly managed, it is the London Haydn Quartet that captures the essence of this music’s grace more convincingly. If the Kodály’s most successful movement is the third, it still misses the sense of aliveness that the Hyperion issue exudes. The finale finds honours fairly evenly split, with a nice sense of rusticity from the Kodály ensemble, but with three out of the four movements clearly finding the London Haydn Quartet out front, the decision is made.

No. 2, in C major, is an intriguing piece. One might struggle initially to identify the “Vivace” marking of the first movement, as Haydn plays with the relation of tempo and meter. It is deliciously done, and the London Haydn Quartet realise the complexities fully. Catherine Manson’s first violin soars sweetly in this entrancing, enthralling first movement. At 12:16, this is the longest single movement of the set, and one effectively can get lost in Haydn’s explorations of his material. In the London Haydn Quartet’s hands, it is an unalloyed joy to do so. Catherine Manson’s long, decorated line in the Adagio is supremely expressive, especially honouring of the use of large intervals; the Menuetto achieves depths of expressivity not normally found in this particular slot, before the playful finale sets forth. Energetic, virtuoso scamperings proliferate, and what is most wonderful is that the Hyperion recording seems to capture the flavour of a live event. The Naxos version of this fares well, finding grace in the first movement. The reading is complementary to the Hyperion, restrained and sweetly happy. That long violin line is infinitely more preferable on Hyperion; the Kodály Quartet’s first violinist, Attila Falvay, is rather more literal and the sound is nowhere near as inviting. While the Naxos third movement holds many delights, the finale there is identifiably more studio-bound.

Haydn invokes hunting tropes in the 6/8 first movement of the E flat Quartet, the third of the series. The London Haydn Quartet is as jaunty as can be imagined, and there is charm aplenty, particularly in the movement’s final bars. The reversal of cello (melody) and viola (accompaniment below the melodic line) is another indication of the adventurous nature of these works. Further, the London Haydn Quartet places the tempo perfectly (Andante piů
tosto allegretto); as a result, the music unfolds naturally. Haydn likes to write in pairs in this movement, and the resulting paring down of texture is magical. The third movement is robust, while the finale has a blistering energy about it, and Catherine Manson’s articulation in particular is spectacular. The Kodály Quartet’s first movement sounds bland and dry in comparison, while the second movement’s opening merely comes across as dutiful. While they are more successful in the dance elements of the third movement, there is still a gritty dryness that irritates. The finale has life to it, but cannot rescue what is, in comparison, a rather lacklustre account.s

The Fourth Quartet of Op. 50 is in the (for Haydn) rare key of F sharp minor. The crowning achievement of the London Haydn Quartet’s version is the care and attention given to “accompanying” textures. Listen to how even the second violin can be at speed, and how exquisitely balanced the three lower instruments are. Although marked “Spiritoso,” the music holds more than its fair share of mystery. Any arrival on a major mode in this movement is a major undertaking, and when it comes it makes its full emotive mark here. The slow movement (a simple “Andante” indication this time) is remarkably wide-ranging, finding balm in A major before turning once more inward. The finale is a fugue, frantically trying to find itself. The London Haydn Quartet’s performance is almost discomfiting. Over on Naxos, the Kodály Quartet gives a strong account; if only they could match the London Haydn Quartet’s subtleties in the slow movement. Yet their fugal finale is a success, if not quite as edgy as the Hyperion performance.

Often nicknamed “The Dream”, No. 5 in F major begins with a jaunty first movement full of virtuoso writing, especially for first violin and cello. Bright and fresh here, with added edge of attack, it is the perfect foil for the slow movement, a serene Poco adagio from which the quartet deservedly derives its title. The Menuetto is an internalised affair, seemingly seeking not to disturb the Adagio’s spell. The finale is tremendously jaunty here. The Kodály Quartet’s rather rustic way (and, in fact, rustic recording) actually works well here, providing one of the highlights of their set, particularly in the framing movements.

Finally, the so-called “Frog” Quartet (the name comes from the use of bariolage—the rapid repetition of the same note on adjacent strings—in the finale). The first movement of this quartet is warm of sonority and very sophisticated in its compositional technique; the Poco adagio is a miracle of concentration and textural exploration. Even the Menuetto has a quirkiness to it that seems intent on taking a thigh-slapping dance for a walk into altogether more sophisticated territory. The finale is a tour-de-force with that bariolage effect in full swing. Catehrine Manson copes with Haydn’s demands extremely well. While the Naxos Kodály performance is expert, it does not quite evince the same level of connection as the London Haydn Quartet’s performance, with the possible exception of the slow movement.

Although I have spent time comparing the Hyperion with the well-known Naxos competitor, another, this time complementary version of Op. 50, although again on modern instruments, comes from the Tokyo Quartet on DG Galleria (423 509-2). Perhaps not the easiest of issues to find these days, it has the same confidence the Hyperion set exudes.

For Hyperion, Philip Hobbs has done a sterling job with the recording (he is producer and engineer). Expert notes from the renowned Haydn scholar Richard Wigmore round out a simply stunning release.

Colin Clarke



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